A Forlorn Hope
Posted By: Arthur Wellesley<firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date: 13 June 2008, 5:14 am
"Jesus Christ," the officer exclaimed as he peered into the car, a wry smile on his face. "They're still sending you poor fuckers into the Dark Zone?"
Andrew Parish returned the smile, but it did not reach his eyes. "Well, apparently the Militia doesn't have the balls to go in there anymore."
Parish quickly glanced around the pool of light cast by the floodlights the Militia had set up in a broad semi-circle, warding off the approaching darkness which lay beyond. It was not yet nightfall, but the clustered skyscrapers of the Cape cast the city in a premature dusk. A group of Militia stood apart from his interrogator, listening intently to the confrontation with their rifles lying casually upon their shoulders. The Militia were former Marines, returned from the war to find they couldn't yet put down their weapons. They lent their assistance to the beleaguered police force to keep the peace on their ruined homeworld, but the two had from the first found it impossible to get along. There was no administration anymore; jurisdiction was ill-defined, and tactics were a matter of perpetual contention. The Department's hope that the returning Marines would simply provide the muscle behind their implicit authority was an illusion soon dispelled with their arrival. They were not men sworn to uphold the law, but warriors infuriated by the ruination of their home.
The colony of Corsini had a longer history than most, though it was not any more remarkable for it. Founded soon after the maiden colonization of Reach, Corsini experienced a healthy population growth from its earliest days by dint of its abundant natural resources. The opening up of the Outer Colonies turned Corsini into something of a backwater, however, as commodity prices plummeted and mining industries abandoned the planet for more lucrative sites. In time, the losses were compensated with investment in specialized manufacturing and a successful colonial banking system. Despite these developments, Corsini remained quiet—a quality which, though decried by the young and ambitious, was likely the reason it went untouched by the civil strife, then civil war, and finally the Covenant purge that devastated the rest of the galaxy.
The young and ambitious got their chance to see the galaxy when the Covenant came. Even before the conscription, they left Corsini in droves, signing up with the UNSC in disproportionate numbers. With its small population and high enlistment rate, the people of Corsini realized how badly the war was going before most—rows of houses plastered with gold stars stood in stark contrast to the official newscasts. The tranquility of Corsini was soon seen by all as a precious boon in a fast shrinking galaxy. Young men and women, who at first had flocked to the call of the war drums, had to be dragged weeping from their families when the final call was issued.
This change of heart was not limited to the people of Corsini. As the Outer Colonies were reduced to a memory and the fire spread nearer to Earth, the colony came to be seen as an oasis; far enough from the rim to be considered safe and perhaps small enough to escape the Covenant's notice. Thousands, then millions of refugees from glassed planets came to Corsini's doorstep. They strained the colony's limited resources, but in their plight they could not be refused. Provisions were made and the refugees were eventually settled. But the illusion of an unshakeable peace had been shattered. In the stricken masses, the people of Corsini saw their own inexorable future.
When the ever-tightening ring of fire enveloped Reach, Corsini despaired its surely imminent destruction. Yet the Covenant bypassed the planet for its ultimate goal: Earth. The assault on Earth was repelled, and in the month that passed between the first and second invasions, the UNSC chartered thousands of vessels to evacuate the mother world to the handful of Inner Colonies which still remained. Corsini received the lion's share of this diaspora, more than doubling its population in less than twenty-eight days. Many were simply dropped off near the capital of Badajoz, with little or nothing to call their own. Whether or not they had money to their name quickly became irrelevant. Corsini was entirely overwhelmed by the sheer mass of humanity—all goods became unavailable, all services inaccessible.
The outskirts of Badajoz, once known as Peacefield by the locals, was transformed in an instant into a muddy wasteland upon which millions of refugees struggled just to keep on living. Some of the lucky ones managed to get flimsy but serviceable prefabricated houses built during the initial rush. The vast majority, however, lived in tents or cargo containers, barely enough to keep out the elements. The concerted efforts of some organizers had improved the initial squalor of the camps which had claimed thousands through dysentery and other diseases, extending basic amenities into the far reaches of the sprawling shanty towns. Yet for all the improvements, life on Corsini had for the last three years been an unending misery, a blighted infestation of disease, hunger, and crime.
Which was why Andrew Parish could not help but sympathize with the Militia, even as they tried to muscle the police from their rightful duties. To return from the war to find their houses seized by squatters or by the state to accommodate the massive rush, to see their beautiful city reduced to a refugee camp—it must have broken their hearts and boiled their blood. Exhausted from a thirty years effort to save humanity, Parish could not imagine what it must have felt like to be asked to pick their rifles back up and commit the rest of their lives to fixing a broken home.
Yet looking into the face of his current interrogator, Parish could only just contain his anger. The Militia was driven by its fury, with no regard for meaningful improvement. Their flagrant intransigence made clear the low esteem in which they held the police. They were sorely needed, as Parish well knew, but they were still fighting their war, regardless of who the enemy had become.
"Yes, I hear you're doing great works in there," the accosting officer returned with the same smirk. "I hear you're hauling them out at almost the rate they sneak back in."
"Maybe if the Militia did its own self-assigned job they wouldn't get back in," Parish countered.
In the seat beside him, Parish's partner Daiane Mantega stirred restlessly. "Alright, boys, pissing contest is over." She leaned over Parish to bring her face closer to the driver's window. "Just let us through. We're just following orders."
The Militia officer's smirk vanished, replaced by a weary acceptance. He stood back and waved to his comrades lingering in the background. "Let them through," he ordered. The group, disappointed by the abrupt end to the confrontation, moved slowly to lift the barricade off the road, leaving barely enough room for the patrol car to move through.
"Stay safe," the officer said with a curt nod.
Mantega tipped her hand. "Thank you."
Parish knew Mantega only peripherally—it was impossible to retain a constant partner these days—but he knew her to be skilled at defusing the tensions which arose at any contact between the police and the Militia. She spoke to them in soldier's terms, yet always managed to do in a way that did not alienate her fellows. Her diplomacy irritated Parish, however, both for highlighting his own foolishness and for what he saw as compromising the Department's line. He had a vague notion it stemmed from guilt. Mantega's father had been the deputy chief of the Department and secured her a place on the force just before the conscription. The thought angered him further, and compelled him to speak.
"I appreciate your support back there," he said once they had passed the checkpoint.
"They're just doing their jobs, Andrew," she replied in an even voice. "Pissing them off is just wasting time we don't have."
Parish shook his head. "You don't think we should be here."
"I think sending two cops into this shithole is an exercise in dangerous futility," she said, her voice gaining an edge. "Cut it off or wipe it out. The time for half measures is at an end."
"This isn't a warzone. It's our goddamn city. It's our home."
"Is it? Really? Take a look around you."
To that he said nothing. He could understand her position, and those of the countless others who shared and bolstered it. She was young. Her whole life had been dominated by the Covenant threat. She had grown up in a world resigned not only to its own destruction but to the extinction of its very existence. When that pall of inevitability was abruptly lifted three years ago, it had seemed miraculous to all, but to none more than those who had known nothing but a fated oblivion. To see what came after, thousands of humanity's survivors consigning themselves to a self-exile injecting poison into their veins instead of rebuilding their broken homes, must have seemed to them an unforgiveable display of weakness.
But to Andrew Parish, it was a return to normalcy, albeit in its greatest extremity. He had been on the force for thirty-eight years. He remembered the time when society's greatest trials had been dealing with the comparative mundanity of human vice. Their current situation was an inflated version of an age-old problem, yet no one could seem to get past their all-or-nothing mentality. Could they not see their folly?
Parish made a wide turn around a pile of rubble which now marked the old entrance to the Cape. The Covenant had not glassed Corsini, but they had launched a rear-action against the planet's meager naval facilities in the respite between the First and Second Battles of Earth. Badajoz had been mostly spared, but the Cape had taken a pummeling from the alien bombers. If Corsini had any hope of absorbing the massive influx of refugees, it was undone by the wanton destruction of much of the planet's key economic infrastructure.
Much as in its heyday the Cape had symbolized the hopes and dreams of Corsini, it was now the very image of its decay and misery. Situated on a natural headland which had been the site of the original colonist's first settlement, the Cape was transformed during Corsini's rebirth as the colony's economic and cultural center. The finest architects of Earth and Reach were commissioned to build spectacular edifices—towering offices, sprawling museums and audience halls, and looming stadiums to accommodate all manners of sport. It was a manifestation of the colony's pride, the beating heart not just of its capital but of the very people who inhabited it.
The Covenant had done much to destroy the Cape, but most of its structures remained standing in defiance of their assault. Yet it no longer had a purpose. The Cape represented the upper layer of a civilization seeking to express its own magnificence, like the gilding covering the base metal beneath. Then the Covenant came, and all that was left was survival. The Cape was abandoned, for its monolithic structures required more energy than there was left to generate. The height of the buildings was made a cruel joke by the inaccessibility of their upper floors. The heart of Corsini ceased to beat.
It was probably scavengers who first repopulated the Cape, desperately seeking some loot not already taken when the area was abandoned. Eventually some must have decided to stay, men who could not bear to return to the camps, choosing instead the cool, dark silence of exile. These disaffected were truly ruinations of men. Parish did not know what filth they used to get high—there was likely no shortage of chemicals lying around in countless storage closets and basements—but it did terrible things with terrifying speed to the mind and body. Despite the Militia's efforts, these drugs found their way to the camps, whose forlorn inhabitants took no qualms with indulging. It was all too easy to overdose on the toxic concoctions brewed on the Cape, especially for children. Parish had seen his fair share.
The issue of the Cape had been the main flashpoint between the police and the Militia from the beginning. The Militia had planned to purge the area street to street, even requisitioning old armored vehicles manufactured in the unlikely event of a Covenant ground invasion. The Department had adamantly refused, insisting the Cape be patrolled as any other area of the city. When a pair of Militia were ambushed and killed by a large group of the Cape's inhabitants, their bloodied bodies found naked on the street, the Militia refused to enter the area with anything other than overwhelming force. Instead they threw up a barricade along the isthmus, drawing their line firmly in the sand. Apparently having a couple of war heroes bludgeoned to death by a gang of junkies wielding pipes and knives was too much for the Militia to stomach. Parish couldn't say he blamed them.
The Cape was a dangerous place, and the Department seemed more and more willing to give up the facade that it was just another district. Certainly Mantega was. Yet Parish still could not reconcile the idea of storming the Cape like an enemy fortress, especially as such an operation would be dominated by the Militia. Soldiers spilling blood in his city brought connotations of the days before the Covenant, when dozens of worlds were reduced to a tyranny of the sword. He did not believe that an army with a chip on its shoulder should be given free license to open fire.
"What's the call this time?" Mantega asked, interrupting his thoughts.
"Reports of an explosion on fourth."
They were in the very depths of the Cape. The buildings of the Cape once reflected their own radiance in a dazzling display of light. Now the empty towers seemed to absorb all light, submerging the streets below even in midday in a perpetual twilight. At night the darkness was complete and consuming, coupled with a total silence that hung like a heavy blanket, blocking all the noise of the nearby camps. Driving through it was much like driving through a cave, the powerful headlights just penetrating the darkness. Bits of dust and debris swirled in the drafts driven down by the skyscrapers, further obscuring the view. Parish wove cautiously around heaps of rubble and charred vehicles, like a captain navigating an ice floe.
"Mantega," Parish prompted, pointing down the road. In the distance, a single light shone from a window of what was once a high-end hotel.
"Turn off the lights," she said, and he quickly complied. Parish inched the car towards the light, relying more on luck than sight that he hit no collisions. At length he parked the car just beneath the light. He took a deep breath, then switched the sirens on.
The sound penetrated the gloom and echoed among the man-made canyons. Almost instantly the light above went out.
Mantega looked at him. "Electricity in the Dark Zone? An explosion?"
"Drug lab," Parish said with a nod. He looked up. "What was that? Sixth floor?"
Mantega nodded. Both silently unholstered their weapons and exited the vehicle. Parish left the lights flashing but turned the siren off.
"Is the alarm set?" Mantega asked.
Parish clicked a small button on the car's key. "It is now," he said. If anyone touched the car now they would receive a non-lethal but debilitating shock that would render all but the largest or most drug-addled instantly unconscious. Without it, not even the car's chassis would remain by the time they returned.
Parish and Mantega switched on their flashlights and headed inside the building. The exterior showed some signs of charring, but the lobby remained in pristine condition. Anything not nailed down had been carried off, but the marble floors and dark wooden counters still looked ready to receive visitors at a moment's notice. A quick scan of the walls revealed a few paintings still hanging on the wall, slightly askew and coated in dust but entirely unharmed. Three years ago they would have been the first target of any thief, now ignored for their uselessness. One was of the Cape itself at sunset, with the first lights turning on. There was an arcing sweep through the dust, as if someone had cleared it with their hand.
They walked past the elevator doors to the adjacent stairwell. Parish went first after sparing a moment to collect himself. Journeys to the Cape often involved long and harrowing trips up dark stairwells, a deterrent almost strong enough to convince him to give up the district for lost. He walked up backwards, scanning each flight above with his flashlight. Mantega did her best to cover him, but she had no angle. If someone was waiting for them, Parish expected he would die before he knew what happened.
Their arrival on the sixth floor was marked by a bullet-ridden body sprawled forward as if he had tried to flee some unknown assailant. Parish smelled the corpse before he saw it, even though it was fresh. The scent of a man reeking of all the odors the body can produce hit his nose all at once and made his stomach turn.
Parish bent down to look at the body. "Shot. Looks like a shotgun."
Mantega nodded, and gestured beside him with the light of her flashlight. A second body lay in the hallway with most of his face missing. The walls were riddled with bullets.
Parish quickly scanned down both ends of the corridor, then proceeded towards the end where he had seen the light. About fifty paces on, they came to a door that had blown off its hinges, its charred remains lying across the floor like a barricade. The room within was blackened and burned, while the windows on the far end had shattered. Parish could see at least one unidentifiable corpse huddled beside a mass of twisted machinery.
"Ground zero," Mantega murmured.
Parish nodded towards the next door over. "I believe that's our room."
Mantega tried to hold his eyes for a moment, and he knew her thoughts instantly. Just leave, her eyes told him. What are we putting our lives on the line for here?
He ignored her. He stepped over the broken door and softly approached the door beyond. Mantega sidled up on the far side, her mouth set in a firm line and her eyes grimly lowered. Both had their weapons drawn.
Parish reached his hand to rap three times upon the door. "Open up. Police."
He listened carefully for any sounds, placing his ear against the wall for any indication of movement. The explosion, when it came, nearly deafened him. He fell back against the wall dazed, wondering if perhaps there had been a secondary blast in the erstwhile drug lab. Looking up, he saw instead a grapefruit-sized hole in the door where a shotgun shell had just passed through. Next to him, Mantega fired three rounds through the wall, eliciting a second shot from within which ripped through the wall where he had been standing only a moment before.
Mantega likewise dropped to her knees. From within, the shooter screamed something at them, but Parish could not hear the words. Parish gripped his partner's shoulder, bringing her wide-eyed face to his. He gestured for her to remain in place, then jerked his head in the direction of the blown-out room they had passed. Mantega nodded as if she understood, but it did not show on her face. Regardless, she turned around and moved several feet further from the door, crouching as low as she could.
Parish leaped over the door, gripping the frame to propel himself over the threshold. He ran quickly but silently over the soft ash of the floor to the wall that partitioned the adjacent room. He searched for a hole in the wall created by the blast and soon found one—a longer vertical crack, no wider than two fingers put together. He peered through. The room was barely lit by a small lamp on a table already cluttered with the same instruments that had been in the destroyed room in which he was now standing; a rudimentary collection of dull metal containers, worn tubing, and glass beakers. The room had been mostly unharmed by the neighboring explosion, but the lab was clearly inactive. Some of the containers had been shoved off the table to make room for all manner of weaponry, such as the shotgun wielded by a wild-eyed man standing before the door.
In an instant, Parish judged what had happened. After one lab had gone up in flames, the occupant next door had probably intended to flee the inevitable attention the explosion would bring. But the blast had attracted attention of those other than the police. The Cape's inhabitants probably thought the explosion would bring an opportunity for plunder and perhaps even a store of narcotics. Parish imagined the survivor must have run into a group of them on the stairs and scared them off after killing one or two of them. The man must have then retreated back to his room, too terrified to descend the dark stairwell with the angry disaffected roaming below. These chemists were typically not inhabitants of the Cape—at least they did not intend to be. Rather they came for the availability of the requisite materials of their craft. They coexisted uneasily with the natives, using their near monopoly on firearms looted from abandoned army camps to secure their protection. Parish could imagine the man's fear: murders in the Cape were typically grisly affairs.
In his distress, the survivor had apparently taken to his own product with abandon. His hearing now returning, Parish could hear the man's screams, even if he could not understand him. He was utterly incoherent, spitting obscenities in between guttural howling. He waved his shotgun at the wall as if it were a man to be cowed. The situation was untenable. Parish had to end it.
He leveled his pistol through the crack in the wall, but it was difficult to aim in the narrow space. When the man seemed to pause for breath, Parish took the shot. The man was not far, and the bullet found its mark. The man became silent all at once, then seemed to simply crumple to the floor like a marionette with its strings cut. For a moment Parish was still. The new Corsini had forced him to use his firearm many times, but never had a killing felt so much like an execution.
"Mantega!" he shouted at last. "You alright?"
"Yeah," he could just hear her breathe from around the corner.
Parish circled back around the join her. "He's down." He held out a hand to help her up. She was shaken. Still young, he remembered—probably not much experience on the Cape.
He turned to the door and gave it a solid kick. The door shuttered but remained in place—clearly it had been braced. He gave it a second kick with a running start and the door flew open, revealing the room he had seen previously to a proper view. The room was even more a mess than it had appeared at a glance, hardly improved by the appearance of a bloody corpse on the floor.
Parish waved for Mantega to clear the bedroom while he moved for the bathroom. As he passed the table of weaponry he said, "We're going have to police those firearms."
"For Christ's sake," Mantega said, her irritation exacerbated by her shock. "Let's just blow the room, or just leave them for the animals to wipe each other out."
No sooner had her final words passed her lips than fresh bullets tore through the bedroom wall. Mantega fell at the first with a cry. Parish turned just as the second man emerged in the alcove wielding a compact submachine gun. Parish quickly fired twice, not giving his assailant time to adjust his aim. The first round planted itself in the doorframe, but the second found its mark in the man's gut. The man was not large, but he must have been so inebriated that the hit seemed only to stun rather than drop him. Parish bounded across the room in two leaps and pulled the weapon from the man's hand, kicking him in the knee to finally bring him to the ground.
"I'm hit!" Mantega gasped.
Parish quickly patted the wounded man for any weapons, and, finding none, rushed over to his fallen comrade. She was bleeding profusely from her shoulder. He delicately pulled back her jacket to examine the wound. The bullet had entered just below the strap of her ballistics vest and did not appear to have exited.
"You're bleeding bad. It might have hit an artery." Parish pulled a bottle of biofoam from his belt, keeping one eye on the downed gunman. He applied the substance to Mantega's wound, but it poured out as a liquid, rushing into the gash but not foaming. She screeched in pain.
Parish withdrew the bottle and examined it. "Jesus fucking Christ! This stuff is ancient!"
He cast the useless bottle aside and instead tore the sleeve from his own jacket and tied it around his partner's shoulder. Almost immediately it began to soak through with blood.
"Can you walk?" he asked.
All she could do was nod. He helped her to her feet.
Parish activated his radio. "This is Officer Parish, I have an officer down in the Cape on thirtieth and fourth. I need backup and medical assistance immediately."
He turned to the wounded man still lying face up on the floor. "You," he said, kicking the man and eliciting a groan, "get up."
"I can't," he said, cringing and clutching his stomach.
With a hand still supporting Mantega, Parish bent down and hauled the man to his feet. The man cried out in pain but was able to keep his balance once up. The injury looked bad, though not necessarily fatal.
"You first," he said to the man, brandishing his pistol.
"I can barely fucking stand, man," he returned. Indeed, he was shaking badly; from the drugs or the shock Parish couldn't tell. Nor did he care.
The journey back down the stairs was even more harrowing than the first. Parish tried to illuminate the way as best he could while keeping his weapon on the man and supporting Mantega behind him. The man kept rambling beneath his breath, apparently alternating between ominous predictions of "They're gonna get us" to "I can't go no further." Mantega, for her part, made the experience no easier. More than once he heard her whisper behind his ear, "Just take the shot."
As they emerged into the lobby, Parish at least had the relief of seeing an ambulance flanked by a Militia Warthog parked outside the entrance. Two Militia rushed into the foyer upon seeing them, relieving Parish of his wounded partner and carrying her outside. His captive they utterly ignored.
Parish dragged the man outside by the collar of his shirt. Two paramedics were hurriedly rushing Mantega into the back to stabilize her. Overlooking their work was the same Militia officer who had stopped them at the checkpoint. When he saw Parish he sauntered slowly over to him. There was no smile on his face, no smugness in his eyes; only anger.
"You see what happens when you go fucking about here?" he asked sharply. "This isn't a troubled neighborhood. This is a goddamn apocalypse." He looked past Parish at the wounded man, as if seeing him for the first time. "Just what is that?" he asked.
Parish ignored him and addressed the remaining paramedic who had not clambered in back with Mantega. "Him too," Parish said, nodding to his captive.
The paramedic looked at Parish quizzically. "Are you fucking kidding me?" The man had dark rings under hollow eyes and seemed to twitch at every small noise. He guessed the paramedic had not slept more than a few hours in many days.
"He needs help," Parish said steadfastly.
The paramedic laughed a hysterical laugh, looking towards the night sky and scratching his head. "We don't have beds for her," he said, nodding towards Mantega. "But cops are priority. Cops. Not shit-stains."
"You'd leave him here to die?"
"We don't have the fucking beds!" the man screeched, lunging forward at Parish with his fists. The Militia officer stopped him, pushing him back.
"Christ!" the officer cried. "Just get ready to leave." He turned back to Parish as the paramedic disappeared behind the ambulance. "Listen to me. We're not staying. We're not even supposed to be here, but we were closest and there was a wounded officer. But we're not staying. So leave him here and get the fuck out."
With this, the officer and his comrades clambered into their Warthog and drove off behind the ambulance. In an instant, the street was as silent as the deepest, darkest calm.
"Put me down," his captive pleaded. Parish felt the man's knees buckle, and he lowered him gently to the sidewalk.
"They're not taking you."
"Yeah. Yeah, yeah. I know."
Parish looked into his eyes, deep brown eyes adorning a rather handsome face, twisted as it was by pain and three years' hard living. What was he—early twenties, perhaps? He couldn't help but wonder what this kid would have done, what he might of been had it not been for the troubles. What would he have said three years ago if he were told that he was going to bleed to death on a sidewalk in a carcass of a city?
"I'm sorry," Parish said simply.
"Please," the man gripped his shoulder. "Don't. Please don't leave me. They'll come for me."
Parish looked around. He saw nothing, but he knew of whom the man spoke. The disaffected would be out to plunder his body, of its possessions and all things else, and perhaps even to seek vengeance for the killings of their fellows above.
"I can't stay."
"I know." The man was shivering intensely now, so that he could barely talk. "My pocket," he said, reaching down.
Parish felt inside the man's pocket and retrieved a small hypodermic injector. Checking its container, he saw that it was filled with a translucent yellowish liquid. With a high level of narcotics already present as well as extensive blood-loss, further injection would prove immediately fatal. Parish looked into the man's eyes once more to make sure he was certain of what he was asking. The man nodded once.
Parish injected the substance into the man's neck. At once the man's back arched and his eyes widened. His breaths became faster and sharper, and then slow and rasping. Parish counted the breaths on the air as they came out in pale white plumes. He remembered suddenly that winter was fast approaching. Life on Corsini these days was not easy, but the cold brought with it its own particular miseries.
The last breath came as a thin wisp, curling quickly to a nothingness above his face. The man seemed then to shrink into himself with a soft groan as he passed. The sound was the same his cat used to make, when the passing sun stirred him from his sleep to follow its restless path.
Standing up from the corpse, Parish scanned his surroundings. The lights on his car were still flashing, alternately bathing the street in red and blue light. He saw them now, just illuminated by the lights. They skulked in the alleyways all around him. They did not move, but watched, waiting for him to a move off like vultures waiting for the larger predators to move off.
Parish got into the driver's seat. He rested his hands on the wheel for an instant, contemplating the rush of events. Probably the Militia would get their way now, especially with the wounded officer so clearly in favor of the prospect herself. And why not? What was he holding on to? Humanity had reached its nadir, and change was desperately needed. Yet loosing a bitter army to slaughter a host of hopeless addicts seemed only to be digging deeper.
Yet contemplating it would change nothing. He had never been much listened to.
Parish drove back to his civilization.